Tlachtga OI: "earth spear"--tlacht "earth"; gae "spear".
While on the one hand, the figure of Tlachtga is one of the many tragic heroines of Irish myth (such as Deirdu or Grainne), she is also an onomastic device--that is, she is a figure used to explain the name of a geographic location. This location is the Hill of Ward, near Tara.
There are two references to Tlachtga in Irish literature; the first is the banshenchas "the Lore of Women" which sought to act as a sort of condensed guide to the various women of Irish myth. The second source is the dindsenchas "the Lore of Places" which sought to explain the names of various locations in Ireland. In each poem, we are told that Tlachtga is the daughter of Mog Roith, a powerful druid of Munster, and is associated with the son or sons of Simon Magus, often tragically.
Tlachtga means "earth spear" from tlacht "earth" and gae "spear." The hill is the site of a great oenach--gathering--where the druids would light the bruane Samhna--new year bonfires on Samhain (this was not at Tara). Now called Ward Hill (or Hill of Ward), it lies 12 miles northwest of Tara. Tlachtga was then the point where the druids felt that this world and the otherworld were closest at the new year; this tradition was later blended with that of Tara, which would then be associated with the holy center of Ireland. The hill had consisted of a raised enclosure surrounded by four banks and ditches--a series of rings; these were disturbed in 1641.
The odd thing about the banshenchas version is that Tlachtga's story is rather incongruously combined with that of Etain and Midir. Fuamnach is the spurned wife of Midir. Briefly, Midir has fallen for Etain, and when Fuamnach hears of this, she turns Etain into a butterfly, which then starts the story of the Wooing of Etain. It isn't clear what this has to do with Tlachtga's story. Moreover, the unnamed martyr that Tlachtga is said to have slain may be a confusion with the legend of her father, given below.
Now, Tlachtga is a sun goddess--one of several in Irish mythology (another being Grainne wife of Finn mac Cumhail). However, it is a monkish invention to identify the father of her rapists with the biblical/gnostic Simon Magus. This is derived from an odd medieval Irish tale about the beheading of John the Baptist. In this tale, the executioner is Mog Roith, who then takes up with Simon Magus, and after Simon is discredited, goes off to Ireland with his daughter. However, in the tale "The Siege of Knocklong" (ICK), Mog Roith is a powerful druid of Munster, able to defeat the forces of Cormac mac Airt. This is likely the original tradition. But as we have seen, a third tradition in the banshenchas credits Tlachtga with the killing of a martyr--again, this is likely a confusion with Mog Roith.
The name Mog Roith apparently means "devote of the wheel," and it is assumed that the wheel in question--as well as the wheel that Tlachtga makes--is the sun. This could then mean that the Samhain fires held on her hill were a way of recapturing the sun's light in the new year--a way of ensuring light against the growing darkness of winter. The "pillar" is thought to represent lightning--and this would then explain the name "earth spear", for lightning was a spear thrown at the earth. She is then also not only goddess of the sun, but of lightning and storms.
The theme of a goddess who dies in childbirth, giving her name to the land, is also seen in the story of Macha in the Ulster Cycle. In dying and entering the earth, her power then resides in the land.
Images of Tlachtga/Hill of Ward at Knowth.com.
"The Banshenchsa Part I" ed. by Margaret E. Dobbs. Revue Celtique vol. xlvii. 1930. Found on the web at http://www.cassidyclan.org/partI_Banshenchus.htm
Gwynn, E. The Metrical Dindsenchus, vol.IV. Dublin: DIAS, 1995. URL: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/published/T106500D/index.html
Matthews, John & Caitlinn. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom. Rockport, MA.: Element. 1994.
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Mary Jones © 2003